Entry 57: Universe of Blue– “I don’t do chords,” said B. B. King. Now, most musos would treat such a statement from, say, me, as an excuse for excoriation, humiliation and light entertainment. But, for B.B that was OK. He played in a range of venues from juke-joints to stadia and command performances at the White House, as well as other prestigious places over a period of 60+ years.
For women, it’s not so good, though, is it? They begin to fade from view very soon. Is this related to the premium placed on the value of feminine beauty that kicks in earlier and earlier it seems- but which can be estimated as a sweet spot of the two decades between fifteen and thirty-five? Lamentably, fewer women than men older than this remain in esteem in Western culture.
Adieu, farewell earth’s bliss,/This world uncertain is./ Fond are life’s lustful joys-/Death proves them all but toys./None from his darts can fly-/I am sick; I must die./Lord Have mercy on us.
The opening stanza of Thomas Nashe’s, In Time of Pestilence, is as striking today as when it was penned towards the end of the 16th Century.
Beauty is but a flower,/Which wrinkles will devour./Brightness falls from the air;/Queens have died young and fair;/Dust hath closed Helen’s eye:/I am sick; I must die./Lord, have mercy on us.
There must have been something in the water, or perhaps, the firmament during the 16th Century- some alignment of stars conducive to literary excellence. Can you hear echoes of Shakespeare? Or perhaps, Marlowe? And do you hear, listening intently, the voice of Sir Thomas Wyatt, earlier in the century complaining,
They flee from me that sometime did me seek/With naked foot stalking in my chamber/I have seen them gentle, tame and meek/that now are wild and do not remember/That sometime they put themselves in danger/To take bread at my hand; and now they range,/Busily seeking with a continual change.
Febrile, youthful males in every generation since have yearned for the consummation outlined in stanza two where Wyatt remembers a time,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,/And she me caught in her arms long and small,/Therewithal sweetly did me kiss/And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
How like you this, indeed! Sex and Death- as always, a heady mixture- and one supplied in copious quantities by artists down the centuries. But the mixture cloys and thickens, sweetly-sour, when the 19th Century gets hold of it.
The Lady of Shalott by Tennyson supplies the nexus. In a grey tower by the river running to Camelot sits a faery princess weaving a magic web replicating what she sees through her mirror- the passing parade; trapped by a curse…(theorists of every stripe have had a field day with this!) she must not look directly out of her window.
The mirror shows her the agrarian round of sowing and reaping and harvest and bucolic celebration until she sighs, I am half-sick of shadows. Then, Sir Lancelot appears,
His broad clear brow in sunlight glow’d;/On burnish’d hooves his war-horse trode;/From underneath his helmet flow’d/His coal-black curls as on he rode,/As he rode down to Camelot./From the bank and from the river/He flashed into the crystal mirror,/’Tirra lirra,’ by the river/Sang Sir Lancelot.
Oh, my Lord! The power of music- like a pentatonic riff by B. B. King ripping through the consciousness of, say, a pimply 15-year-old in Northern Ireland in the mid-sixties- the lyrical notes of Sir Lancelot drew the Lady to the window where,
Out flew the web and floated wide-/The mirror crack’d from side to side;/”The curse is come upon me,” cried/The Lady of Shalott.
No prizes for guessing the denouement. She finds a boat and, singing her death-song, drifts with the current towards Camelot,
They heard her singing her last song/The Lady of Shalott/Heard a carol, mournful, holy/Chanted loudly, chanted lowly/Till her blood was frozen slowly/And her eyes were darkened wholly/Turned to towered Camelot/For ere she reached upon the tide/The first house by the waterside/Singing in her song she died/The Lady of Shalott.
The Pre-Raphaelites lapped it up and painted various scenes from it. Founder of the movement, William Holman-Hunt, painted the lady entangled in her magic tapestry’s web as Sir Lancelot passes by outside singing Tirra Lirra.
The Awakening Conscience, painted by Holman-Hunt, fifty years before, makes for an interesting comparison; there, too, is a mirror, a window and a beautiful woman depicted, but here, she’s on her lover’s lap as she gazes, transfixed out of the window.
As I look from one painting to the other, I am, inexplicably reminded of those beauty pageants for pre-teens where mothers primp and preen their pre-pubescent daughters for the cattle-call. The song which follows details the future life of such a little one.